When Joe Bar first opened on Capitol Hill in 1997, none of us constantly carried around smart phones, OJ Simpson was still facing a jury, and “Titanic” was raking in cash as the big deal movie of the year.
Next month, in July, Joe Bar will turn 17 years old. It’s become like the wise older brother in a neighborhood where change is constant, and where most new restaurants never get a chance to grow up.
“When I look around it’s amazing how many places have come and gone,” owner Wylie Bush told me. “A lot of times people forget to come to the north end of Broadway, but we’ve been here so long that about 90 percent of our customers are regulars now. They’re like family. And you’re nice to your family. You don’t yell at your family! I think that’s one of the reasons we’re successful.”
And soon, the Joe Bar family will be expanding, with a new location where Chico Madrid used to be at Roy and Bellevue. The name Barjot is an obvious nod toward its successful older sibling.
“Well, I’ve paid off my big loan for Joe Bar,” laughed Bush. “Somehow I did it, so I decided it was time to expand. I like the location and we’ll see if I can make it work.”
Barjot will feature homemade baked goods, a departure from the beloved crepes at Joe Bar. Bush says kitchen manager Maegan Rasmussen has been furiously working for the last few months, perfecting new recipes.
“She’s really the secret behind everything,” he said. “Maegan is a genius. She’s making some really great stuff.”
There will also be coffee and fresh juice at Barjot, and Bush has applied for a liquor license as well, hoping to add cocktails to the menu. He wants to open Barjot’s doors by late June.
“I’m going to be there a lot once we open,” said Bush. “I mean, a lot. There will also be a lot of crossover staff from Joe Bar. I want to make sure it’s got the same neighborhood feel.”
And that neighborhood feel is what Bush thinks is the key to Joe Bar’s success. He bought Joe Bar in 2000, after working there for the first three years as a barista. He was 25 years old and had just graduated from the University of Washington.
“Capitol Hill has always been a really finicky neighborhood,” he said. “Things got really desperate about ten years ago. That’s when Rocket Pizza, Dreamland, and Orpheum all shut down. I’m not sure I can actually tell you all of the reasons that we survived and others didn’t.”
During that time period, Bush watched as restaurant after restaurant, and coffee shop after coffee shop, shuttered around him. In fact, so many places shut their doors in the space east of Joe Bar that Bush just decided to take it over himself.
“Yeah, we used to be really tiny,” he said. “But we expanded, and I added the crepes in 2003. We’ve always focused on having good quality and being fast. I think the main reason we do so well is that people say really nice things about us.”
It’s certainly the case. A look at Joe Bar’s reviews on Yelp show an overwhelmingly positive and happy bunch of customers, which is a departure from the usual cesspool of hatred.
“I think we’ve done a good job of appealing to a lot of different types of people,” said Bush. “Our neighborhood is a mix of real affluence and students. But I think everyone feels welcome and can afford what we’re doing. That’s what I like about cafes. You don’t have a price point that leaves some people out, or that you have to cater to.”
As Bush expands the Joe Bar family, he can’t help but think about how Seattle’s new minimum wage will affect his business. He says he’s remaining optimistic, hoping it will just help everyone in the neighborhood.
“I really hope the economists are right, that it will bring more people in the door,” he said. “I want people to make more money. I want them to buy more coffee. I’m sure we’ll still make it work no matter what.”
“You know,” said Bush, “people always have this misconception that there’s a lot of money in restaurants. And there is. The problem is that it all goes right back out. I compare running a restaurant to being in a wind tunnel. A bunch of money is blowing past you, and you just try to grab as many of the dollars as you can before they’re gone.”
711 Bellevue Ave. E.